Globally it has becoming a standard to wear face-covering or other types of protective medical equipment to prevent COVID-19 infection. Still, everyday an alarming number of people are getting infected.
And health workers are putting on added coverings, such as gowns. Still, all protective gear shares one important problem: people still risk becoming infected with the COVID-19 if they accidentally touch areas of the fabric that are contaminated with viral particles.
So researchers are working to develop functional clothing that could inactivate or repel coronaviruses—ideally including the one that causes COVID-19 — and other pathogens. A group of researchers in Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering at Indiana University developing electroceutical materials that wirelessly ‘produce electric fields across the surface of the fabric to inactivate or repel viral particles.
“People can transfer infectious particles to their hands if they touch the front of a mask during use or when they remove gowns or other PPE,” says Chandan Sen, Director of the Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering at Indiana University.
He and his colleagues have been developing a way to render those particles and other infectious agents harmless. The team researches ‘electroceutical’ materials that wirelessly “generate electric fields across the surface of the fabric,” Sen says.
Those fields can disrupt the behavior of bacteria or viruses on the cloth.
“The beauty of this (technology) is the inherently simple design,” he added.
The polyester material is printed with alternating spots of silver and zinc resembling polka dots. They are one to two millimeters wide and spaced one millimeter apart. When the electroceutical material is dry, it functions as an ordinary fabric. But if it gets dampened—say, with saliva, vapor from a coughed up droplet or other bodily fluids—ions in the liquid trigger an electrochemical reaction.
The silver and zinc then generate a weak electric field that zaps pathogens on the surface.
The researchers co-developed the material with the biotechnology company Vomaris Innovations in 2012.
Last year they showed that the technology could be used to treat bacterial biofilms in wounds. A clinical trial is underway to further evaluate the fabric’s effectiveness as a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) –cleared dressing for wound care, Sen says.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sen’s team tested its prevailing material on a different COVID-19 strain that causes respiratory illness in pigs and on an unrelated type of pathogen called a lentivirus.
“We wanted to know how broadly this principle could be applicable,” he says.
In a study posted on the preprint server ChemRxiv in May, Sen’s team reported that its electroceutical fabric destabilized both viruses, leaving them unable to infect cells. The researchers plan to submit the results to a peer-reviewed journal as well.
The material’s virus-fighting abilities have not been tested specifically on SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The researchers’ findings with the two viruses they studied.
He adds that large-scale manufacturing of the electroceutical fabric is already possible and that the costs of producing it are relatively low. The metal dots could be printed directly onto the front surfaces of masks, he suggests. Or an electroceutical fabric could be inserted between the front of a mask and the wearer’s face.